Instead of dealing with lead paint removal “drop by drop, drip by drip” over the course of decades, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden is proposing a $12 billion nationwide effort to clean up nearly all of the hazardous old paint within five years.

Rep. Jared Golden

Golden, a first-term Democrat in Maine’s 2nd District, said the initiative would pay for itself in lower health care and education costs while simultaneously improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of youngsters whose development is cut short by lead exposure.

“It’s more expensive to do nothing,” Golden said Wednesday.

The goal of Golden’s Lead Free Future Act is to eliminate the major sources of lead exposure for America’s children, a policy pushed since 2016 by the Maryland-based Green and Healthy Homes Initiative.

The president of Green and Healthy Homes, Ruth Ann Norton, said Wednesday that Golden’s proposal “is the right thing to do.”

“It has nothing but an upside,” she said, and failing to take action would knowingly “consign children to be poisoned,” stunting their futures, families and communities.

Golden said the fundamental problem is that there’s “a whole lotta lead in a whole lotta homes” that simply isn’t safe for children. He said getting rid of it is the only effective answer to the problem.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, last week proposed an even more ambitious bill, calling for the government to spend $100 billion to deal with lead pipes and lead paint.

“We cannot allow another generation of Americans to be poisoned by their homes and drinking water,” Ryan said in a prepared statement. “By taking bold action, we can eliminate lead-based hazards wherever they persist.”

Golden said he hadn’t studied Ryan’s measure but wanted to make sure his own bill would have a good shot at drawing support from Republicans and Democrats.

It’s not clear whether Golden’s bill will sway political opponents wary of its price tag.

Ben Carson, the secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said during a visit to Lewiston in March that Golden’s solution may not be the right answer. Dealing with the lead issue, he said, is “not just a matter of throwing money at it.”

Carson also said new technology and new techniques may resolve the problem in coming years without slamming taxpayers, though there is little evidence of any looming breakthroughs that would do the job.

Norton dismissed Carson’s comment as “utter nonsense.”

U.S. Census

She pointed out that when Carson worked as a neurosurgeon, he wouldn’t even send young patients back to homes with lead paint because he knew the danger it posed.

Lead paint is a bigger issue in New England and the Midwest than elsewhere because so many homes were built long before a 1978 ban on the use of lead paint. Until 1950, lead was a common ingredient in paint.

The issue is especially important in Golden’s sprawling, rural district where many people live in old homes that often have unsafe old paint that can harm children. Lewiston and Auburn are among the worst-hit communities in the country for problems with lead paint.

The Maine Tracking Network estimated that between 2013 and 2017, 310 young children – roughly 6 percent – in Lewiston and Auburn suffered from dangerously high exposure to lead.

Healthy Androscoggin, which has long focused on the issue, describes lead as “a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children under 6 years old” who most often are exposed from chipping, peeling paint in older homes.

The lead can create a dangerous dust “that settles on floors and windowsills where children and infants can touch and ingest it by chewing on toys, putting their hands in their mouths, and eating without washing their hands,” the community coalition said.

There has been a serious focus on the issue for years in Maine, but there has never been enough money. A Lewiston official estimated this spring it will take 80 years at the current spending level to clean up all of the lead paint in apartments and houses in the city.

The federal government has been inching up what it allocates to the effort, with President Donald Trump calling this year for an increase to $290 million for lead paint removal nationwide.

That’s just a fraction of what Golden is looking for.

Earlier this year, in a letter to Carson, Golden said that spending $2.5 billion annually during a five-year period would allow for the remediation of lead in about 220,000 homes each year.

“The economic case for this funding level is clear: For every dollar invested in abatement, taxpayers receive $17 to $221 in return,” the lawmaker said, citing statistics from a 2009 study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

That study found that investing in lead paint removal would produce a net savings of as much as $269 billion by paring future health care, social, and behavioral costs.

A 2016 report by the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative said that children harmed by lead exposure “enter school with diminished reading and learning abilities and drop out of school at a rate seven times greater than their peers. Additional effects include hearing loss, speech delays, aggressive or even violent behavior and long-term health impacts on the kidneys, heart and brain costing the U.S. over $50 billion.”

In Maine alone, Golden said, “the total number of both confirmed and unidentified lead poisoned children has resulted in a potential economic loss of about $1.9 billion due to the effects of lead on their intellectual function.”

In a letter to House colleagues last week, Golden said, “For decades, we have known about the irreparable impact of lead exposure” and “we’ve known how to take action to protect children in our cities, towns and rural communities from environmental lead hazards.”

“The missing link,” he said, “is the level of investment that meets the scale of the problem, and would allow us to end lead’s toxic legacy once and for all.”

He said his Lead Free Future Act, slated for introduction Thursday, offers “a bold plan to do just this.”

Urging them to support his measure, Golden said, “Together, we can act to protect America’s children from the lifelong impact of lead exposure, make investments that will allow our communities to reap returns for decades to come, and end lead’s toxic legacy once and for all.”

Golden wants Congress to commit to spending $2.4 billion annually for five years. He said another $500 million in private and philanthropic cash would be part of the mix.

The money would be used, he said, for grants to “support efforts to target and remediate lead hazards in housing, drinking water, and soil in pre-1978 residential properties of low-to-moderate income communities across the country.”

The legislator said the grants would let communities — “including rural communities and small towns which have historically been left out of lead remediation funding programs” — make “bold investments in housing, drinking water infrastructure and environmental cleanup.”

He said the funds would serve to “holistically and meaningfully reduce the risk of lead exposure for this generation of children, unlocking the health and educational potential and resulting in a measurable return on investment.”

The federal government banned the use of lead paint in residential property in 1978, but progress in removing the hazardous older paint has been slow.

Golden’s measure calls for spending $100 million to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to support more blood-lead surveillance outreach and education.

“More support for lead surveillance and education allows public health professionals to identify areas of elevated risk for lead exposure and direct resources to primary prevention before a child is poisoned,” the congressman told colleagues.

The bill would also require states to use the CDC-recommended blood-lead reference level or a lower level to be eligible to receive any federal lead poisoning prevention funds. Many states currently use an older, higher standard despite a 2012 CDC finding that there is no safe level for lead in blood.

Golden said requiring every state to follow Maine’s lead in adopting the lower standard would give a more accurate picture of the scope of the problem nationally.

Golden is also seeking a requirement “that lead-based paint and lead hazards in drinking water and soil are assessed and remediated prior to sale, transfer or occupancy of federally assisted properties,” including those that receive mortgage assistance or rental assistance.

The new mandate, he said, would ensure that “federal dollars will no longer be used to propagate lead hazards in the residential property market.”

“Why are we using taxpayer dollars to put children into a home that may be poisoning them?” Golden asked. He said it makes more sense to remove the lead before children move in rather than dealing with it after those youngsters are suffering potentially life-changing health issues.

Norton said there is “a moral urgency” to act swiftly on what she called a “fairly modest proposal” by Golden. “Everybody benefits from this.”

The bottom line, Golden said, is that taxpayers will save money if they “get rid of the poison” sooner rather than later.

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